News

KILLER BABIES, Greenbank couple discovers baby orca

BY MICHAELA MARX WHEATLEY

South Whidbey Record

A Greenbank couple had the rare luck to spot a brand-new baby whale just a few hours after it was born off Lagoon Point.

They didn’t know it at the time, however.

“Let me tell you a secret; we didn’t know we were looking at the baby whale until the whale research people told us,” Gene Ohlson said.

On Nov. 6, Ohlson and wife Merilyn saw a group of about nine orcas from their Greenbank home.

Gene, a hobby photographer, grabbed his camera and took pictures of the whales as they splashed in the water about one mile north of Lagoon Point.

As the pod came in closer, the group spread out. Ohlson was snapping photos as they paraded by.

Among the shots was one that showed a small dark subject nestled in between two large whales. Unknowingly, Ohlson may have taken the first picture of the newborn calf.

He shared the photos with a neighbor, who then passed them on to Susan Berta of the Orca Network.

“The baby was in the middle of the pod,” Ohlson said. “It was very close to the mother, almost touching the mother. And then there was another sibling or something close by,” he recalled.

Berta, a whale expert, reviewed the shots and had no doubts. It was the new calf called J43 that was born a little over a week ago.

“That’s the new little J43 closely nestled next to J14,” Berta said.

When Ohlson took the picture of J43, it was only hours old. Berta said the calf was not with the pod on

Nov. 5 when NOAA Fisheries was with J pod, so likely it was born sometime in the night between Nov. 5 and the afternoon of Nov. 6.

The new orca brings J pod up to

26 members, and the total population of the southern resident orcas to 88.

The infant whale was roughly

7 feet long and weighed more than

900 pounds when it was born.

Whale experts compared the size of the baby whale to another well known celebrity that’s made a big splash in the world.

“It was born the size of Shaq, the basketball player,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok of the Center for Whale Research.

Birth is a family affair for the highly social animals, and whales are a very social society. Family members stay close by during birth and function as midwives, Balcomb-Bartok said.

“I once saw a grandmother lifting a baby to the surface to take its first breath,” he recalled.

Family members also stay nearby for protection during and after birth.

“It’s a wonderful society. Families stay together for life,” Balcomb-Bartok said. “Once the baby whale is born, it will stay with the same family for its entire life.”

The new arrival is a reason to celebrate, Berta said. However, the birth of a calf is not very unusual. During the past year, three new calves have been born to the southern residents whales: J42, L109 and L110.

Five southern resident orcas have died since last year, according to the Center for Whale Research’s annual survey.

J pod and its youngest member have been spotted since Nov. 6 all around the Puget Sound.

For many who saw the newborn calf, one question quickly arises: What kind of name is J43 for a cute baby whale?

Berta explained that the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island designates the letter and number for each whale born because they have been doing the annual orca survey for decades.

The identification system itself was developed in Canada, and a letter is given for each pod of whales. The southern resident pods are J, K and L, the northern residents in Canada are A through I pods. The number is their birth order.

“So the new calf is J43, because the last calf born was J42,” Berta said.

Unofficially, the whales do have names, she said.

“The orcas are also given names. J1 is ‘Ruffles’ for his big, ruffled fin, J2 is ‘Granny’ because she is one of the oldest females,” Berta said.

The Whale Museum holds contests each year to name the new calves. For a list of all the southern resident orca names, go to www.whalemuseum.org/programs/orcadoption/whalelist.html.

J43 has not yet been named.

“Right now it will just be J43,” Berta said. “The Whale Museum waits at least a year to make sure the calf survives before naming it.”

After the first week of its life, it appears that J43 is likely to make it through its first year.

“It sounds like this calf has a pretty good chance. The biologists out with them yesterday said it was very active, taking long dives for a calf and swimming under their boat,” Berta said.

J43 is also lucky to have a healthy, experienced mom. It’s the fifth offspring of J14, or Samish, a 33-year-old orca.

“It is J14’s fifth calf, which is good,” Berta said. “The first-born calves have a rougher time of it, because their moms have a build up of toxins in their blubber and fat and the high fat-content milk they nurse their calves with transfers the toxins to the calves, with the first born getting the highest dose of toxins,” she explained.

Baby whales exclusively nurse for the first year of their lives. In their second year they nurse and eat solid food shared from other whales.

At age 3, they eat solid foods only and hunt for themselves.

Even though they nurse longer than human babies, whale calfs develop surprisingly fast in other areas.

“Once it is born and takes its first breath, its tail starts to stroke and it swims,” Balcomb-Bartok said. “It’s born ready to run.”

Baby whales also pick up quickly on the family’s “dialect” and sound patterns.

“While in the uterus, it hears the calls of its family and begins to learn them,” he said. “Once they are 6 months old they are communicating,” he added.

Now that the Ohlsons know what to look for, they hope J43 will make another appearance off Whidbey Island’s shores, Ohlson said.

The Ohlsons often watch whales from their home on the north tip of Lagoon Point.

After spending the summer frolicking in the San Juan Islands, the resident orca pods are now south in inland waters for the fall and early winter months, traveling down Admiralty Inlet to chase salmon runs into lower Puget Sound.

Ohlson said usually the pods pass through quickly and rarely hang around to eat.

“We have done a lot of whale watching from sea kayaks,” he said. “Here on Whidbey Island they seem to be traveling through.”

However, his latest encounter with the J pod was a rare and special sighting, he said. The whales took their time as they swam past.

But Orca Network has received several sightings of the orcas off Whidbey Island, Port Townsend and as far south as the Kitsap Peninsula during October.

This time of year offers wonderful opportunities to observe orcas from the shoreline of Whidbey Island, Berta said.

Many people also report seeing orcas from the shore or while commuting on ferries, she added.

Historically, only J pod remained in the inland waters during the fall and winter months.

During the past eight years, however, all three resident pods have been reported off Whidbey Island and in lower Puget Sound into December or later.

No one knows why, exactly, but one guess is the increasing runs of chum salmon in inland waters. It could also mean a depletion of Chinook salmon in the whales’ feeding areas.

More research is being conducted into the prey species, feeding habits and habitats of the Southern Resident orcas as part of the NOAA Fisheries Orca Recovery Plan.

The Orca Network hopes that anyone who sees a whale will report the sighting. Whale reports may be called in to the toll-free number at 1-866-ORCANET, or e-mail reports to info@orcanetwork.org.

The Orca Network has a Website and an e-mail list of recent whale sightings to increase opportunities for seeing the whales. Visit www.orcanetwork.org or www.whaleresearch.com for more information.

EMAIL NEWSLETTERS

Latest news, top stories, and community events,
delivered to your inbox.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the latest Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Oct 1 edition online now. Browse the archives.